LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard led the Blazers’ lift-off over the Rockets and into the second round of the playoffs.
Result: 4-1 loss to the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Semifinals
Though the Spurs thoroughly dominated Portland in the second round, it was an extremely encouraging season for a Trail Blazers team that exceeded expectations in 2013-14 with a first round win over the Howard-Harden-headed Houston Rockets.
Led by veteran three-time All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge, and Damian Lillard and Terry Stotts—their tandem of player-coach sophomore sensations—they won 54 games this year (21 more than last year) and became the first Blazers team to win a round in the playoffs since the 1999-2000 squad that squandered the late lead versus the Lakers in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals.
Year In Review: Get Used To This Fun-Gunning Group of Guys
Barring a shocking shakeup, this Portland starting core (Lillard, Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and Robin Lopez) will continue to be led by Stotts (who recently received a multi-year extension) for the foreseeable future. If they can add a little bit and continue to improve from within, it’s entirely possible that over time they’ll develop into a championship-caliber club.
Lopez was an incredibly important addition in a three-team deal involving the Pelicans and Kings in which the Blazers gave up the draft rights to Jeff Withey, a future second-round pick and cash considerations.
While Lillard, Aldridge, Stotts, Batum, and Matthews are often the one’s getting all the glory in terms of filling up the stat sheet goes, Robin supplanted himself in my eyes as the better brother this season (sorry, Brook & Brooklyn, but not really).
Everyone is aware of what Aldridge and Lillard can do. Batum is one of the best small forwards in the league, and Matthews, one of the best sharpshooters in the league, should have been chosen to participate in the three-point competition this year.
While I strongly believed entering the season Portland had a legitimate shot at earning a spot in the playoffs this year, I never imagined that they’d win enough games to finish fifth in the loaded Western Conference and be one of the final eight teams standing.
It simply wouldn’t have happened without the addition of Lopez, whose one-on-one defense on DH (whose sure to make one of the three All-NBA Teams at center along with Joakim Noah and Big Al Jefferson) in the first round allowed his teammates to cling to Houston’s shooters and key the Blazers’ upset.
Batum is a standout defender as well, and with help from Matthews and others, the Blazers also managed to keep James Harden colder than he was all season.
However, without Lopez’s interior defense all season, it’s unlikely the Blazers would’ve played enough defense to catapult them into the playoffs, let alone deliver highly hyped Houston a first-round knockdown punch.
On top of adding Lopez, who helped turn a 33-win lottery team into a 54-win fifth seed in the stacked west, LaMarcus Aldridge made the jump from All-Star to superstar and arguable MVP candidate. While I want to say he needs to take better shots, it’s hard to argue with the selection when he’s splashing as often as he does from wherever he pleases.
What Needs To Be Improved
The Blazers still have a lot of work to do to get better defensively overall, but adding a veteran center in Lopez certainly helped them improve on that end. Aldridge and Lillard were both All-Stars for a reason this year, but if the Blazers are going to take the next step in 2014-15 their two leaders are both going to have to commit to making individual improvements defensively. At this point the Blazers’ defense needs to get better, but the team’s most glaring weakness is their lack of depth.
While the 1999-2000 Portland team that ultimately collapsed—as Shaq & Kobe went on to win their first championship—was one of the deepest in NBA history, this years Blazer bunch relied on their starters to play the highest percentage of minutes per game among all starting lineups in the league.
Since Mo Williams (9.7 points, 4.3 assists and 2.1 rebounds in 24.8 minutes per game, only Blazer off the bench to average 15 or more minutes per game) has already said he’s going to decline his player option for 2014-15 in hopes of getting one final three-year deal, addressing and improving the Blazers bench should be a huge priority (along with nailing down extensions for Aldridge, Matthews, and Lopez, all of whom are entering the final year of their current contracts), especially given that they don’t have any picks in the 2014 NBA Draft.
They have a young bench (Will Barton, C.J. McCollum, Thomas Robinson), so improving from within is obviously important this summer; but because the Blazers are one of the most competitive teams in the league, they might become a more attractive landing spot for free agents.
Barton was big in the Blazers’ lone second-round win versus the Spurs in Game 3, contributing 17 points (7-13 FG, 1-2 3Pt, 2-2 FT), 6 rebounds and 2 assists in 30 minutes. The Portland coaching staff has a lot of faith that if he continues to work hard he has the ability to become an exceptional defender, which bodes well for him and the team going forward.
With McCollum and Barton (assuming they pick up his contract) still on the roster next season, it is possible Portland could choose to let Williams sign elsewhere this summer and give McCollum (who missed much of the season due to injury) and Barton (who averaged more minutes per game in the playoffs than regular season) the opportunity to earn larger roles.
The NBA is a long season. It’s a marathon, not a sprint—though in the West there are so many great teams that the 82-game grind does turn into a rat race. Regardless, if the Blazers are going to become true title contenders, they’ll need to be able to count on their bench more than they could this year.